The Western world and Oberlin College have fallen into a state of ideological blindness that grows harder to discuss as time passes. I’m not talking about typical political battles. I am talking about a subject that both Fox News and Bill Maher love to exaggerate, dividing the country in a “culture war.” What could conservative mainstream media and the self-proclaimed voice of the left possibly have in common? They both actively seek to divide atheists and people of faith. In other words, they consumerize each camp by simplifying each side’s complexities.
I have seen the media’s work at Oberlin, watching students dismiss others’ beliefs in class and on campus; it has finally disturbed me enough to say something about it. Since students here often define themselves as leftists, it seems that many have also quickly and easily embraced a problematic version of atheism that I call radical proselytizing atheism. Like followers of radical religious sects, radical atheists create obstacles to obtaining societal peace.
These days it seems that some atheists feel the need to convince everyone that their stance is right. How is this line of thought different from that of the ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist Church members who stand outside Planned Parenthood pelting innocent women with plastic fetuses or picketing gay weddings? How does it differ from a conservative Muslim society that segregates women against their will, refusing to permit them proper education? (I’m not talking about those who wear the veil by choice.)
In many of my history classes here at Oberlin, students practice missionary atheism and end up dominating a discussion. In one particular incident, students refused to discuss the possibility that Christianity could have played roles other than that of a cultural aggressor and suppressor during the age of European colonialism. The converse is also true at Oberlin, as just the other day I was confronted by a pair of young people pushing gospel CDs and dodged condescending comments hurled at me when I politely declined to take one.
Whether or not proselytizing atheists or Westboro Baptists are on the same moral ground is not the point of this argument. The point is that both groups are acting in a way that is socially destructive and divisive. Actively denying someone’s religious or spiritual beliefs and insisting that faith is the root of all problems is both counterproductive and annoying. Denying the possibility that one’s own belief could be flawed is just a poor approach to life. Too often in American society and at Oberlin, theists and atheists refuse to speak to one another productively or are socially abusive when the topic rears its head. Both parties are guilty, but in my experience there has been more blatant close-mindedness on the part of atheists, possibly because in heavily religious societies atheists can feel censored, while in a secular environment such as Oberlin, atheists are free to share their opinions. That does not excuse returning that abuse, however. Religious conservatives need to stop calling atheists “hell-bound” or “blind,” and atheists need to stop calling people who believe in a higher power “idiots” or “irrational.” People seem to forget that being religious and being spiritual are not the same thing: Not everyone is a scriptural literalist and being an atheist does not make one the spawn of Satan. Figureheads like Bill Maher would do well to remember this, because even though the likes of religious scholar Reza Aslan try to set him straight he falls back into brash Islamophobia: “The Muslim world … has too much in common with ISIS,” Maher declared on his HBO show, Real Talk with Bill Maher (Sept. 26, 2014).
Dialogue is a tool for healing between communities. Talking to one another and really listening to what the other has to say humanizes people of differing beliefs and can change someone’s beliefs. Believing in God or not does not make someone a bad or unintelligent person. The world is not black and white; there are infinite grey areas. Many people know this or are at least aware of it, especially at an academic institution like Oberlin, so it is time that we as a society stop purposefully ignoring this fact when issues that revolve around religious beliefs are discussed. Tolerance and understanding can only be achieved within a culture of open communication.